Suardi Chapel: Lorenzo Lotto and the end of the world
February 1524. Throughout Italy, people were talking about something like the great flood that was believed to be coming. Astrologers had been foretelling such an event for some time, based on the alignment of the planets. Many people left their homes, seeking refuge in more secure places. Some even predicted the coming of the Anti Christ.
Just a few years prior, the German theologian Martin Luther shook the foundations of the Catholic Church when he railed against the corruption that ran rampant in Rome. In response, in his Papal Bull in 1520, Leo X spoke of “barren vines that are not in Christ”. Martin Luther was excommunicated, but he ignored this and continued preaching.
Meanwhile, a corrupt and mercenary war continued throughout Italy. Soldiers of fortune ruled the day and, drunk with their new power, did not hesitate to destroy the sacred images they came upon in their campaigns. So, the storm was real, but also symbolic: the world was falling into ruin.
In Trescore Balneario, just a few kilometers outside of Bergamo, Battista Suardi, an educated and enlightened noble, decides that the time is right to offer a point of view on what is happening, a vision, but above all, a way to ward off the real and presumed dangers that were tearing the country apart. He wants to accomplish this through art. In his country home, the family chapel has not yet been decorated. In addition, although it is a private home, it is open to the gentlemen and the residents of the area. In this way, those who came to the chapel would understand what he thought about the heresy and demonstrate what he considered the true faith, so he decides to commission Lorenzo Lotto to create frescoes for the chapel walls. The painter from the Veneto region was 43 years of age at the time, and in his artistic prime. His work was enriched by his experiences traveling and meeting with the greatest Italian and Nordic artists.
Lotto and Suardi were more than just artist and client, they were also friends. Through Suardi, the painter became acquainted with a group of eminent, scholarly and scientific men. These encounters provided him with new ideas that were fundamental in developing the iconographic themes of the chapel. In particular, his friendship with Girolameno Terzi, a teacher of sacred theology, and his discussions with Suardi, led to the conception of the fresco design.
The result is one of the masterpieces of fresco painting of the Italian Renaissance.
Lotto did not aim to achieve the beauty and harmony of Raphael in the Vatican rooms nor the titanic force unleashed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Rather, his art was of the everyday, common, but not lacking in hidden and studied meanings, where psychology combines with symbolism.
As soon as you enter the chapel, the cinematic and theatrical objective that Lorenzo wanted to convey to the observer is evident.
The main wall is dominated by the Cristo-Vite, or a personification of what John narrates in his Gospel, “I am the vine, you are the branches”, which is also a reference to the Papal Bull against Martin Luther. The large figure of Christ stands out in the center of the work and vines sprout from his hands that form spirals around prophets and sibyls. Around Christ, Lotto depicts the life of Saint Barbara.
In the story, divided into episodes defined by urban spaces, architecture and Renaissance-style galleries, there is a play between the scenes in the foreground and those in the background. The descriptive power of the work is remarkable, as a result of the use of colors and unusual combinations, and gives an impression of being somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. To the left, Lotto depicts the fall of the heretics that attack the vines with pruning hooks, but are fought back by Saint Jerome. The scene has heavy cinematographic flair.
The walls to the front are dedicated to the history of Saint Brigit, an Irish abbess known for her charitable works, and invoked as the patron saint of the harvest and of flocks, and like Saint Barbara, protected against natural disasters.
With respect to the other walls, these frescoes are less chaotic and more composed, but the scenes of the saint’s life still convey sincerity, and reflect the spirit of the times, but also a world in which work in the field forms a background for teachings of sacred texts, philosophy and other complex concepts.
Above one of the two small windows, you can see a man carrying a bundle of staffs used to catch birds. In one hand, he is also holding a crutch upon which an owl is tied. The man is Lotto, who portrays himself as a bird catcher. The ceiling is decorated as though it were open to the sky. In addition, with remarkable illusionistic effect, he makes it seem that the spirals of vines continue through the wooden beams from which the bunches of grape hang down. Within the simulated vines there are little angels harvesting the grapes, and one of them makes what could be seen as an irreverent gesture, but contains a hidden symbolic meaning. The angel is peeing the portrait of Lotto. However, in alchemy, urine was referred to as Lot, so there is the subtle play of words with his name.
The Suardi Chapel represents the apex of Lotto’s work, popular and complex at the same time. It is noteworthy for the immediacy of its themes and representation and is even more intriguing if it is read within the context of certain esoteric theories and rich with hidden meanings.
Guided tours of the frescoes are conducted every Sunday (from March to November), without advance booking. The first tour is at 3:00pm, the second at 4:30pm (meet in the Ufficio Pro Loco).
Tickets cost €8, while for groups of more than 15 people the price is reduced to €6 per person. There are discounts for children under 14.
To visit the frescoes on other days, you must make a booking (minimum 5 people), at least a couple days in advance at the Ufficio Pro Loco of Trescore Balneario, in Via Suardi 20, telephone +39 035 944777
For groups of 10 to 25 people, booking is mandatory.
The entrance to the Chapel is through the Ufficio Pro Loco. The visits must be through a guided tour.